Potential is a dangerous word.
When someone tells you that your child has “real potential,” you probably feel delighted. Maybe you imagine your child soaring through life, surpassing all of your accomplishments, suffering none of your setbacks, while you watch with loving admiration.
But then the worries start, because potential, after all, is a possibility, not a guarantee. What if your child doesn’t live up to that potential?
The Pressure to Help Our Kids Achieve
Friends, neighbors, and the “child improvement” industry are quick to tell us everything we need to do to help our children reach their potential. They insist:
– Play Mozart while your baby is in the womb.
– Use the “brain boosting” baby formula.
– Sign your toddler up for gym classes to develop gross motor skills.
– Arrange for music classes to develop your child’s mathematical thinking.
– Start soccer by three or it will be too late.
– Language immersion must take place before the critical period ends.
– It’s not enough to do one activity; you have to make sure your child is well rounded.
From all sides, the message is, “Start early; go faster; do more.” The earnestness and intensity of this advice makes it seem as though any parent who doesn’t sign her children up for a bevy of enriching activities is neglectful.
We all know that overscheduled children (that is, kids who do more activities than ours do!) are a national problem, but the pressure and competition continue, and nothing changes. Philosophically, we might appreciate the value of down time, but as parents, we’re afraid to do anything less than everything possible to develop our children’s potential.
In our zeal and anxiety to make sure our children fulfill their potential, we look to grades, test scores, and class placement as if they were crystal balls into the future — objective and infallible indicators of what lies ahead. We fret if a grade is low. We worry that our children might not be working hard enough. We fear that the curriculum offerings might not be challenging enough. Again, we are bombarded by advice: “Oh, isn’t your daughter doing the computer-based tutoring that will advance her test scores one whole year?” We monitor homework, help them study for tests, critique their papers, supervise their science projects, and worry we’re not doing enough. We wouldn’t want our children to waste their potential.
The Burden of Potential
It’s very easy for thoughts about potential to slip from “possibility” to “expectation.” Conscientious efforts to support and encourage our children’s achievement can drift into anxious concerns about what they could accomplish, if only they apply themselves diligently enough and take the right classes and get the right opportunities and score high enough…
Potential becomes a burden when we see it as a predestined calling to impressive accomplishments. Both parents and children can become seduced into focusing on performance rather than growth, on being The Best rather than making progress, and on accumulating external awards and accomplishments as the primary measure of worth. Worst of all, this one-dimensional perspective on potential creates a terrible fear of failure.
A Different Idea of Potential
A narrow view of potential suggests that there is some lofty gold ring of success our children will either jump high enough to reach it or else fall short. But life doesn’t work that way. In real life, there are lots of choices, lots of chances, and lots of paths. It makes no sense to talk about kids “not living up to their potential” because the miracle of children is that we just don’t know how they will change or who they will become. The path of development is a journey of discovery that is clear only in retrospect, and it’s rarely a straight line.
Potential is not an endpoint; it’s a capacity to grow and learn. Nurturing children’s potential, in the broadest sense, means cultivating their humanity. It involves supporting their expanding abilities to reach out to others with kindness and empathy, to feel part of something bigger than themselves, to find joy and satisfaction in creating a life that is personally meaningful…and so much more.
The Downside of Being Smart
Concerns about “achieving potential” tend to be especially prominent when it comes to school performance. Maybe this is because kids spend so much time in school. Maybe it’s because school is often a segue to future careers. Or maybe it’s because nowadays children’s academic performance is constantly rated and ranked.
What’s surprising to us is that the greatest anxiety about achievement—in both parents and kids—often surrounds the children who have the most scholastic aptitude. These children spend a lot of time thinking and hearing about what they could or should achieve—because of their potential.
Academically capable children often face a lot of pressure to achieve. And sometimes that can lead to too much focus on what they do rather than on who they are.
A Healthy Perspective on Achievement
Kids today face unique challenges in developing a healthy perspective on achievement. We’ve observed this in our own children, in our friends’ kids, and in the children we work with in our psychology practices. Too often, we’ve seen smart kids who
– Give up at the first sign of difficulty,
– Become distraught over minor mistakes,
– Seem unmotivated and put forth minimal effort
– Find working with classmates intolerable
– Get into needless power struggles with adults
– Feel lonely and disconnected from peers.
As clinical psychologists, we’ve seen a lot of bright but unhappy children. In fact, some of the most miserable, angry, or stressed-out kids we’ve worked with were also the most academically capable.
We live in a narcissistic age that emphasizes being impressive and seeking admiration. Sadly, smart kids are often the ones who are hurt most by this focus on externals. Because they can perform, and that performance seems so important to everyone around them, they may start to believe that they are the performance.
A real danger facing bright children is that they will come to define themselves solely in terms of their accomplishments–to believe, “I’m smart, but that’s all I am.” This makes them terribly vulnerable. If they don’t perform perfectly, if someone else is “smarter,” if they have to struggle to learn something, or if they encounter any setback, they feel inadequate or even worthless. A minor criticism leaves them feeling wounded or enraged. Even their victories can feel empty because admiration is a cold substitute for closeness. When kids measure their worth solely in terms of achievement, their self-image becomes distorted and their ability to connect with others is crippled.
The antidote is to help children to cultivate a broad self-definition that encompasses not only their abilities, but also their humanity. This does not mean either settling for mediocrity or creating “super kids;” it means helping children develop the foundation they need to discover their passions, build relationships, sustain effort, and create a life with authentic happiness.
Compassion, perspective, grit…these qualities aren’t necessarily impressive—your kids won’t win a certificate for developing them—but they are essential to a well-lived life.
As parents, we are our children’s first mirrors. Our comments and reactions shape how they see themselves. The world will tell our kids that they’re smart. They need our help to see that they are far more than that. What matters is not only what our children can do but also how they touch the lives of those around them. We need to show our kids that we treasure their kindness, humor, curiosity, determination, and compassion. We need to hold up a mirror to them that reflects, not just their performance, but a caring view of their true and evolving selves. By loving them for more than their abilities, we show our children that they are much more than the sum of their accomplishments.
What messages did you get about achievement from parents or teachers when you were a child? What messages do you want to convey to your child?
For further reading:
Kennedy-Moore, E. & Lowenthal, M. S. (2011). Smart parenting for smart kids: Nurturing your child’s true potential. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
Golinkoff, R. M. Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Eyer, D. (2003). Einstein never used flashcards. Rodale.
Weissbourd, R. (2009). The parents we mean to be: How well-intentioned adults undermine children’s moral and emotional development. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.